Mr. Roth is one of those authors I’ve known about but never had the opportunity to read. I had heard of some of his novels: Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, Ghost Writer, along with his most famous (and recurring) character, Zuckerman. I’ve read of the controversy, the claims of antisemitism, the accusations of misogyny, but as a skeptic I often wondered how true they were. Of course, I try to keep in mind that everyone is flawed, and when it comes to art of any kind, I always try to separate the art from the artist.
So before exploring Roth’s fiction, I thought it would be interesting to first read his nonfiction. A few months back I picked up a copy of his collected nonfiction, titled, Why Write?. I purchased the book assuming it was essays and treatises about the craft of writing. What I got was something slightly different.
I’d say at least one-third of the pieces in this book are about Roth’s work, the criticisms he’s received and his responses to them. While interesting, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Then there are the interviews. These were more interesting. Most of the writers Roth speaks with are also Jewish and survivors of the Holocaust (Roth was too young to experience that, and his family was already well-established in the US). It was interesting to read how this experience affected them, affected their work, affected their outlooks on life and the art of writing. The interviews with Roth aren’t quite as insightful. In my opinion he comes across as cranky and somewhat defensive. It reinforced some of the things I’d previously read and heard about his personality.
Near the end was one piece, the text of a talk he gave to the Lotos Club in New York sometime in 1994. Juice or Gravy? had the biggest impact on me and was possibly one of the most insightful, albeit brief, personal revelations in the book. Here Roth describes a time when he was fresh out of the military, living in a one-room apartment while teaching at a nearby university. One of the few things he treats himself to is a somewhat weekly excursion to a local cafeteria that served rare roast beef for dinner (hence, the title). One stormy night he arrived, picked up his dinner, then went to sit at his regular table. When he arrived he found a single, typewritten page. On closer inspection he saw it was covered with nineteen seemingly random sentences all jumbled together in a stream-of-consciousness paragraph.
He took the page home with him and promptly forgot about it, but over the course of the next year he would find it in random locations in his apartment: on the floor next to his desk, on the small table near the door that held his telephone, mixed in with a stack of essays he needed to grade.
It was only after a year that he had a revelation, one that changed his life. He finally realized that these weren’t random sentences. No, these were the first sentences to the stories he was going to write. And that’s what he did, putting a red check mark next to each one once the related story was completed.
Roth never knew where that page came from, who wrote it, why it was left on that cafeteria table. But finding it changed his life, propelled him forward, made him a household name.
If you have the chance, I do recommend this collection of nonfiction, but go into it with an open mind.